Views & Reviews Review of the Week

Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 19 June 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:1439
  1. Richard Hurley, technical editor, BMJ
  1. rhurley{at}

Richard Hurley witnessed a performance in which women incarcerated in a mental institution a century ago share their stories with women of today

Hysteria is a theatrical piece inspired by real cases of ordinary women who were wrongly interred at a psychiatric hospital in the late 1800s. They were incarcerated for such improprieties as promiscuity or being too vocal and were subsequently diagnosed as having hysteria. Their histories are juxtaposed with stories from today, revealing how society’s attitudes towards women have changed—and how some have not. In examining these women’s relationships with men and with each other, Hysteria presents an ethereal journey into the female psyche.

In the 18th and 19th centuries diagnoses of hysteria were common in women, effectively pathologising emotional expression. In devising Hysteria the Brazilian theatre company used case reports from the Pedro II Mental Institution in Rio de Janeiro and referred to interviews, anthropological studies, and the work of the Parisian psychiatrist Jean-Martin Charcot.

Hysteria is described as “site …

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